Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Days 148 – 151

Day 148

28 May 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 5 (1902)
This symphony has always been considered one of Gustav Mahler's finest, however its popularity soared still further when its Adagietto was used in the 1971 Luchino Visconti film of Thomas Mann's novella A Death In Venice. This always reminds of a story the film's star Dirk Bogarde used to tell of a Hollywood mogul who loved the music, leading him to ask Visconti who'd written it. When told who it was, he replied, "Who's this Mahler guy's agent?" Anyway, I digress, there is a lot more to this symphony than its exquisite fourth movement. It was the first purely orchestral one Mahler had written since No. 1, and insofar as a 70-minute symphony can be tightly focussed, it feels a lot leaner than much of what he'd written before.

The work is in five movements, divided, rather pointlessly in my view, into three parts (movements 1 and 2 are 'Part 1'; 4 and 5 are 'Part 3'). The opening is quite unusual, with a solo trumpet playing a subdued fanfare to a funeral march. Even Mahler conceded that people might have expected the first and second movements to be the wrong way round. There is a sense of unity throughout the work, which derives from earlier-quoted themes constantly emerging in later movements, with the Rondo finale in particular making repeated use of the secondary theme from the Adagietto. The journey from the funereal opening movement to the rollicking finale is what makes this symphony such an uplifting experience, especially in a concert hall where its manageable length and relatively standard orchestral forces make it an ever-popular choice.

Day 149

29 May 2017: Khachaturian – Symphony No. 1 (1934)
For a composer whose name would probably not be well-known to the public at large, Aram Khachaturian has written more than his share of popular tunes. His ballet Spartacus provided the theme tune to the 1970s TV show The Onedin Line, while another of ballets – Gayane – supplied not only the Adagio that was the evocative music accompanying the space flight in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also had an electric guitar version of its Sabre Dance turned into a top five hit for Dave Edmunds' Love Sculpture in November 1968. Not 'arf, pop-pickers.

I find Khachaturian's music to be almost instantly recognisable. His native Armenia shares a border with Iran and Turkey and there is a strong middle-eastern inflection to his melodic lines, especially in the first movement here. If there is a criticism of this work, it is that, at times, it feels like a succession of folk tunes stitched together. It isn't, but there is an episodic feel throughout. That said, the ravishing orchestral colours he employs more than make up for that. Khachaturian is undoubtedly best known for his ballet music, and of his symphonies, only really the second is performed on anything approaching a regular basis. There is plenty to enjoy in this work, however.

Day 150

30 May 2017: Bax – Symphony No. 3 (1929)
And so, we bring up the 150 with arguably the best of Arnold Bax's symphonies. He wrote seven, which means that this is third of seven occasions this year when I will bemoan the fact that they are rarely performed. I've often wondered why; it could just be down to the changing tastes of the British public, or overly cautious artistic directors steering clear of unfamiliar works. My own theory is that Bax needs to have written at least one truly outstanding symphony, rather than seven broadly similar ones, none of which ever get a look in when concerts are being programmed. If one of them is to step up to the plate, as it were, then the strongest case could probably be made for the third.

This symphony was hugely popular in Bax's lifetime. It was first performed at the Proms in 1930, the year after its composition, featured in each the six subsequent Proms seasons, then again in 1939, 1942 and 1944. And that was that; it hasn't been heard there in 73 years. Quite why it should have dropped off the British music radar so comprehensively is baffling. It is a magnificent work. An opening solo bassoon melody provides the thematic material for a huge 20-minute first movement of a mostly reflective nature. A beautiful slow movement that evokes images of the West Highlands of Scotland, where the symphony was written, follows. The real symphonic masterstroke though is the Finale, which is bright and optimistic at first, before giving way to an epilogue of indescribable beauty that elevates the piece another level. This really should be standard repertoire for British orchestras. 

Day 151

31 May 2017: Haydn – Symphony No. 82. 'The Bear' (1786)
In 1785, Josef Haydn was commissioned by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (see Day 79), who was then the music director of the Concert de la Loge Olympique in Paris, to write six symphonies to be performed as part of their subscription series the following year. Now collectively known as the Paris Symphonies, they remain among Haydn's most popular works. Symphony no. 82 in C major was the first performed, although not the first composed, of the six, and is known as 'the Bear'. As usual, the nickname did not come from Haydn himself, but was given to it as a result of the bagpipe effect employed in the fourth movement. It was thought to resemble the music used in a popular form of street entertainment ... dancing bears. It was a different age.

Haydn had long since moved on from his Strum und Drang period, and this symphony is more typical of his court-pleasing output. There is a consummate ease to the writing throughout as one might expect from a composer now in his 54th year and widely revered throughout Europe. Haydn's speciality is his ability to occasionally pull out something unique in his symphonies – a gimmick, if you will – to make them memorable in some way, and the bagpipe drone effect in the fourth movement must have been quite startling to the late-eighteenth century audience. He certainly knew how to win over a crowd.

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